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Utah Blogger Fired for Homophonia

The folks at the Nomen Global Language Center are not that adept with the local language. Paul Rolly reports for the Salt Lake Tribune:

Homophones, as any English grammarian can tell you, are words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings — such as be and bee, through and threw, which and witch, their and there.

This concept is taught early on to foreign students learning English because it can be confusing to someone whose native language does not have that feature.

But when the social-media specialist for a private Provo-based English language learning center wrote a blog explaining homophones, he was let go for creating the perception that the school promoted a gay agenda.

Tim Torkildson says after he wrote the blog on the website of his employer, Nomen Global Language Center, his boss and Nomen owner Clarke Woodger, called him into his office and told him he was fired.

As Torkildson tells it, Woodger said he could not trust him and that the blog about homophones was the last straw.

“Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality,” Woodger complained, according to Torkildson, who posted the exchange on his Facebook page.

Somehow, I think they’ll be known for something else entirely.

UPDATE: Woodger denies the claims, according to a report from The Independent:

Woodger refuted the comments from Torkildson, saying that his decision to remove him from his post had nothing to do with homosexuality.

He told the Salt Lake Tribune that Torkildson’s recent blog postings had begun to “go off on tangents” and had become confusing and sometimes offensive.

He also said that homophones were beyond the understanding of the majority of the students at Nomen, who were mostly at the basic levels of learning the language.

A little more digging turns up a Google cache version of Torkildson’s actual blog post. It certainly strikes me as appropriate for the position and reasonably well crafted.

homophone-cache

Utah is a right to work state and Woodger and company have the right to fire their social media manager for pretty much any reason they please—although probably not on the basis of Torkildson’s sexual orientation. If they did it simply because they thought people would get confused by the blog posts, they’re legally clear but they certainly look like buffoons.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. jd says:

    One of the best examples of homophobia I’ve seen in a while.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 0

  2. grumpy realist says:

    …why does this remind me about the time someone in Washington D.C. got fired for using the term “niggardly” in a sentence?

    (He used it correctly, by the way. “stingily, scrimping, paltry”)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  3. stonetools says:

    English is hard…..

    What’s amazing is that the Nomen Global Language Center are holding themselves out as English language experts.
    I tell you, the job of The Onion and other parodists is harder than you think…

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 1

  4. To quote Professor Farnsworth, I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  5. Ewe kant bee sirius?!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  6. Pinky says:

    I guess you all would be fine with having pedants teaching your kids?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 0

  7. If we let our children be exposed to homophones without complaint, the next thing you know people like Torkildson will be advocating that schools teach them how to conjugate!

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  8. JKB says:

    How on earth is being notified of homophones beyond the capacity of English learners? Maybe don’t test them on it, which seldom happens on blog post, but it would certainly help the non-English speaker to know they weren’t hearing gibberish sometimes. And also, that there is no rule, only memorization to help solve the problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  9. Scott says:

    @Pinky: To say nothing of those dramatic thespians.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  10. Mu says:

    How long until this story will be the top entry on google for Nomen Global Language Center? Already up to page 2.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  11. Tyrell says:

    @Stormy Dragon: That is what I have been saying for quite some time: a lot of schools have de- emphasized and reduced down the teaching of grammar skills and terms. Gone is the conjugation, diagramming, parts of speech, sentence construction, and theme writing. Gone are the days of the language teacher armed with a red pen. When you got a paper back, it looked like a shark had got hold of it. Some schools, including ours, told teachers to quit using the red pens back when misguided educational “experts” said all of that might just hurt some kid’s feelings (that was back when the schools and country went through the “self esteem” fad and some schools outlawed giving someone an F, graded papers could not be displayed, and everyone got some kind of award at the end of the year). Gone are the days of grammar textbooks with tons of practice sentences. Teachers did not depend on worksheets back then. I have seen first hand the downsizing of spelling and grammar skills. This is because these skills are not tested. “If it is not on the test, don’t waste time on it” is today’s rule.
    If the school in this article had been teaching spelling and word study (phonics) they would have seen the term homophone almost daily. It used to be homonym years ago. The schools I have been in do not have spelling or grammar books. What skills are taught are minimal . I was in a high school language class last year (10th. grade). Only one student knew what a preposition was, and she had come from a military base school. The rest of the class struggled with a their, they’re, there lesson, which used to be taught in third or fourth grade. And if you want to get people riled up, just bring up the current cursive writing controversy. They will never get over it.
    Let me say once again that some schools may stiil be teaching proper grammar skills, but lot aren’t or give it short shrift. Just ask a college professor. The testing program drives everything, including lunch and recess schedules.
    “Teach what you test”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  12. @Tyrell:

    If the school in this article had been teaching spelling and word study (phonics) they would have seen the term homophone almost daily. It used to be homonym years ago.

    Homophones are two words that sound the same but have different spellings (e.g. “through” and “threw”).

    Homographs are two words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciations (e.g. “bass”, the fish, and “bass”, the musical instrument).

    Homonyms are two words that have the same spelling and pronunciation, but different meanings (e.g. “bank”, the side of a river, and “bank”, a place where money is stored).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  13. DrDaveT says:

    Of course, when teaching homophones there’s always the problem of “sound the same in which version of English?”. I remember being furious a few decades ago when I was listening to a British talk/quiz show called “My Word”, and failing to solve the homophone puzzle they had set — only to learn that the solution relies on thinking that “wart” and “what” are pronounced identically.

    Marry, merry, Mary — you can find dialects of English that pronounce them all the same, all differently, or one pair the same but not the other (for each choice of ‘other’).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Thanks for explaining the difference! I think I’ve been using the term “homonym” where I mean “homophone.”

    Actually, I don’t remember getting ANY grammar lessons in English. All the grammar I learned was either from the year I spent in a French school (talk about getting grammar getting pounded into one’s head!) or from the other foreign languages I’ve learned.

    (Which really, really sometimes Does Not Work. If anyone ever tries teaching Japanese to you with Indo-European grammar parts, run far, far away.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. rodney dill says:

    …just so he doesn’t masticate in public…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  16. @rodney dill:

    What are your thoughts on premarital interdigitation?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. wr says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “Homographs are two words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciations (e.g. “bass”, the fish, and “bass”, the musical instrument).”

    In all my years of reading and writing, I’ve somehow never come across this word. Thank you for improving my education!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  18. mantis says:

    Your gay! No, you’re gay! No, yore gay!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  19. gVOR08 says:

    My tech writer complains that Microsoft Spell Check thinks it’s smarter than ewe are.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. pylon says:

    Hopefully, Mr. Woodger doesn’t have to teach any paleoanthropology. He might have to say “homo erectus”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  21. rodney dill says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I think its better to copulate than never.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  22. rodney dill says:

    …and consequently homogenization has screwed the whole dairy industry. …something that only affects female body fluids.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  23. Monala says:

    @grumpy realist: I remember that. That was one of the few incidents I’ve heard of that really was an example of political correctness run amok, rather than people screaming foul when someone faced employment consequences due to their blatant racism, sexism or homophobia.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. grumpy realist says:

    @Mu: Having this episode being the first result in the Google page result would be karma, indeed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. rudderpedals says:

    his boss/Nomen owner Clarke Woodger

    I feel for the kids. Can you image what it must be like in Clarke’s classroom?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. CSK says:

    @rodney dill:

    Or have a teacher who’s a sexagenarian.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Maybe there’s hope yet!

    NASA Validates Microwave Propulsion

    http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-07/31/nasa-validates-impossible-space-drive

    We should note NASA doesn’t want to wade to deep into the religion of the thing:

    “This paper will not address the physics of the quantum vacuum plasma thruster, but instead will describe the test integration, test operations, and the results obtained from the test campaign.”

    Right to Work is are perilous waters indeed. Childish knee-jerks such as these get no appeal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. DrDaveT says:

    @Monala:

    [The 'niggardly' incident] was one of the few incidents I’ve heard of that really was an example of political correctness run amok

    I score that one as 75% illiteracy, 25% political correctness. No matter how PC you are, you have to be ignorant about the meaning and origins of the word for it to be an issue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  29. rudderpedals says:

    @DrDaveT: This. Tar Baby’s another.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. rodney dill says:

    …The Jews are really gonna be pissed, ’cause this whole post is entirely anti-semantic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  31. rodney dill says:

    @DrDaveT: Actually I’ve always thought that using a word like ‘niggardly’ , even correctly, in a situation where you know it will be, or you intend it to be mistaken as racist, is actually racist.

    Of course the trick is identifying intended vs inadvertant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  32. KansasMom says:

    @mantis: Yergei!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. DrDaveT says:

    @rodney dill:

    Actually I’ve always thought that using a word like ‘niggardly’ , even correctly, in a situation where you know it will be, or you intend it to be mistaken as racist, is actually racist.

    Prior to the DC incident, it had never occurred to me that there WAS such a situation. Which other perfectly normal words do I now have to worry about? Can I say kite? Snigger? Goop? Day-glo? Quahog?

    If I tell a mixed-race group that I had my dog spayed, or refer to a linch-pin, am I being a sly racist? It seems to me that you would have to have racist ideas about the literacy of the audience to even think that way.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  34. Kylopod says:

    I immediately thought of the “niggardly” incident. There are some differences, however. While the firing of the aide by the DC mayor was an overreaction, you have to admit “niggardly” is a pretty obscure word; before the incident, it was a word I knew only from reading Victorian literature. And it’s quite possible–though I don’t have proof–that its resemblance to the racial slur contributed to its obsolescence.

    In contrast, “homophone,” while somewhat technical and jargony, is not all that obscure. Furthermore, unlike “niggardly” there isn’t really any synonym you could use as its replacement. It’s close in meaning to the better-known “homonym,” but there you have the same problem.

    Another thing–at least we can agree that the DC mayor’s actions stemmed from an aversion to racism. But with the “homophone” incident, they were upset that the teacher was allegedly “promoting the gay agenda.” In other words, they were driven by intolerance, the opposite of Mayor Williams’ motive.

    Finally, I have to point out the supreme irony of both incidents: that they were in fact examples of homophony.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  35. rodney dill says:

    @DrDaveT: I think whether you’re actually racist or not depends on your intent. …and yes some of those examples might trigger a response of racism in some who are hyper sensitive to racist terms. In general, I don’t think that’s a big enough reason to necessarily change your speech patterns. If it crosses your mind that a word in a particular situation might be misinterpreted it easy enough to avoid. If it doesn’t cross your mind and you are just using a word correctly then why would you worry about it. I don’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  36. Janis Gore says:

    @stonetools: Sorry there on the down vote. My aim was not true.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. DrDaveT says:

    @Kylopod:

    “niggardly” is a pretty obscure word; [...] In contrast, “homophone,” while somewhat technical and jargony, is not all that obscure.

    Huh. I would have said that niggardly is far less obscure. I certainly knew it by the time I was 12. The noun form, ‘niggard’, occurs in The Lord of the Rings, which has been read by gazillions.

    at least we can agree that the DC mayor’s actions stemmed from an aversion to racism.

    No, I don’t think we can. I think the mayor’s actions stemmed from an overreaction to misinformed criticism and an aversion to bad PR.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  38. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: You’ve now reminded me of a wonderful bit of The Thin Man….(those of you who have seen the movie will know what I’m talking about…)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. grumpy realist says:

    @DrDaveT: I also chalk it up to earwax build-up. The two words sound differently!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  40. Janis Gore says:

    Dayum, y’all! This blog has some literate readers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  41. Kylopod says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I certainly knew [niggardly] by the time I was 12.

    And I had been exposed to “homophone” long before I was 12. I’m pretty sure I got my first homophone/homonym lesson in 3rd grade or earlier.

    The noun form, ‘niggard’, occurs in The Lord of the Rings, which has been read by gazillions.

    And words like facinorous and mome occur in the plays of Shakespeare, which have been read and watched by gazillions more. Your point is…?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0